Victorians discuss transitioning from paying poll tax to voting for a black presidential candidate

Jan. 22, 2012 at 11:01 p.m.
Updated Jan. 21, 2012 at 7:22 p.m.

Florence Tillman pauses for a moment while describing her experiences in the late 1950's and early 1960's when suffrage was restricted by a poll tax. The tax limited the opportunity for poor people to vote, a significant portion of whom were minorities.

Florence Tillman pauses for a moment while describing her experiences in the late 1950's and early 1960's when suffrage was restricted by a poll tax. The tax limited the opportunity for poor people to vote, a significant portion of whom were minorities.

Florence Tillman was about 7 years old when her father got word that he was going to be honored for his longtime employment as a janitor at Victoria Bank & Trust.

Dressed in their Sunday best, the Tillman family headed to the ritzy, downtown Victoria restaurant where the ceremony was to be held.

Upon their arrival, however, their hopes of celebrating the accomplishments of their family patriarch and others were abruptly cut short.

Instead of being able to dine with the rest of the honorees in the dining area, the Tillmans were told they would have to enjoy the ceremony from makeshift tables in the kitchen with buckets for chairs.

The year was about 1941.

Jim Crow laws were still in full effect and the restaurant was a segregated, whites-only venue.

"My mom told them, 'You eat in there,'" said Tillman, now 77 years old. "Eight black families walked out that night."

Sitting in her oversized, brown, leather recliner in her living room on Wednesday morning, Tillman pinpointed that evening as the moment she learned the importance of voting to effect change - even if she had to pay a poll tax to do it.

"I never wanted that to happen again," Tillman said solemnly. "Those things you don't forget."

This year signifies a contemporaneous milestone in the voting history of Tillman and a dwindling number of others like her.

Monday marks the 48th anniversary of the 24th Amendment, which abolished the poll tax that prevented blacks from voting, and the first time in United States history that voters can vote for a black incumbent U.S. presidential candidate.

In 1901, Texas legislators passed a state law requiring a poll tax, making Texas one of 11 Southern states to institute the practice after Reconstruction to prevent blacks from voting.

While well-to-do citizens could afford to pay the tax, minorities, many of whom were poor, could not.

Congress passed the 24th Amendment on Jan. 23, 1964.

At that time Texas was one of only five states still levying a poll tax and one of 12 states that did not ratify the amendment.

In 2009, Texas joined several other states that had previously post-ratified the amendment, officially going on the record against the poll tax.

"It wasn't an accurate reflection of the people," Gino Tozzi, lecturer of political science at University of Houston-Victoria, said about the poll tax. "It stifles democracy, limits participation to those who are wealthy enough to pay for it. This allows for an oligarchy."

Tillman, who worked as a maid for many years, recalled saving what she could from her salary of about $25 a week to pay the $1.50 annual poll tax.

At voter registration time, Tillman said many people had to borrow the money to pay the tax or go without necessities to raise the money.

"Anything that you think is a benefit to you or your race is important," said 76-year-old Charles Bates, as he described saving his earnings from working as a restaurant manager to vote in the Houston elections. "I believed that voting was the right thing to do if you wanted progress of any kind."

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held several rallies aimed at educating blacks on the importance of getting registered to vote and actually voting, Tillman said.

However, she said many of those who did pay the tax were discouraged from voting by the rising racial tension between whites and blacks on the issue.

"It was a hard fight. The people I worked for would ask me, 'You belong to that group? What y'all doing? What is that?'" said Tillman, who voted for the first time at the age of 18 at Patti Welder Middle School. "I stopped working for them."

Juanita Battle-Delaney was well into her 20s when she voted for the first time in Tyler, but her experience was similar to Tillman's.

"There was a fear of going to vote even though you were eligible to vote," said Battle-Delaney, 91. "There had been some disturbing experiences in some of the surrounding areas. In Winnsboro, my husband's home, some of them lost their jobs for participating in anything of a civic nature."

It was not until the 1940's that Battle-Delaney said she became more comfortable with voting because her brother-in-law became a precinct chairman in a district primarily comprised of black voters.

Her run-ins with segregation in her East Texas town spurred her decision to continue fighting racism through the polls.

"One day I made the mistake of stepping off the elevator in front of a white lady. A man walked up to me and told me that I could not ride it again," said Battle-Delaney, who worked as a social worker without the benefits of retirement or Social Security like her white counterparts. "He asked me if I knew who he was. I didn't, he said, 'I'm the one who runs things around here.' Turns out he was the sheriff."

"I said it was a mistake, but it was really not a mistake because I boarded the elevator last so the only logical thing was for me to step off first."

Both Tillman, who went on to become a music teacher, and Battle-Delaney said they are looking forward to the 2012 elections, during which they said they will cast their vote for President Barack Obama, an opportunity the two women thought they would never live to see happen once in their lifetime, let alone twice.

"I think it is progress not only for blacks but for the nation as a whole," said Battle-Delaney. "Someone who is capable should not be held back because of their color. We have a very smart man in office. He hasn't accomplished all of what he would like, but what president has."

"We've come a long way, but things are still not there. But things are coming all in God's time," said Tillman, who said there is still gender and racial discrimination to contend with.

Tozzi also weighed in on Obama's candidacy.

"Over the past 50 years, it has been nothing short of astounding the changes that have occurred," he said. "These changes do take time. They occur from generation to generation. Our level of tolerance for others is far different than from our parents and grandparents."

While Tozzi would not share his exact thoughts on whether Obama would make history by getting re-elected, he did reference a Gallop Poll.

The poll asserts that any candidate with an approval rating of more than 50 percent in June of an election year will be re-elected, said Tozzi.

Tillman, who is not taking any chances on a poll, had this message for others - "Be sure you go vote."



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